Spelling rules

Heaps of books and internet sites will tell you that there are many spelling rules, and if you learn all the rules you will be able to spell.

For example:

Rule: “When two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”

This means that when you have two vowel letters together in a word, you say the name of the first letter for both letters.

This works for words like sundae, rain, been, eat, seize, people, pie, boat, toe, brooch, soul, cue, nuisance and vacuum.

It doesn’t work for words like baa, maestro, said, plait, bonsai, fault, caution, aunt, deaf, great, vein, feisty, feud, friend, skiing, does, phoenix, boil, food, good, blood, loud, cousin, youth, and I could go on with this list for a very long time.

Spelling rules don't work

Once you start trying to use spelling rules, you find that even “I before E except after C” doesn’t work all the time. Witness rein, veil, sieve, surveillance, protein, counterfeit, sheila, seize, apartheid, eiderdown, kaleidoscope, poltergeist, seismic, leisure and heifer.

C sounds like S before E, I and Y” is about the closest English spelling gets to a rule that works, but then you come across the words ocean, herbaceous, cetacean, curvaceous, crustacean, liquorice or licorice, cello and concerto.

A good rule is clear and works all the time. Under this definition, spelling rules aren’t rules at all, they’re more like guidelines, and often not very helpful ones.

Spelling rules are couched in complex language

The other problem with using “rules” to teach spelling is that the language of the rules themselves is too complicated for young children and those with language difficulties.

They tend to include jargon words like "vowel" and "syllable" and "stressed", and complex verbal reasoning using conjunctions like "before/after", "except" and "if…then" in complicated sentences.

Even I sometimes don't really understand what a spelling rule means. Consider the following: "for action words that end in ie, change the 'ie' to a 'y' before adding an 'ing'". Now consider some examples: tie-tying, lie-lying, die-dying. Which was more helpful, the rule or the examples?

Demonstrate spelling patterns instead

We might as well chuck away spelling rules and their jargon altogether, and get on with demonstrating spelling patterns in an orderly way, and letting the patterns speak for themselves.

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